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    Saddle Up with Lemmon

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Jack Lemmon has always been considered an “everyman” actor, accessible, identifiable and pretty much always indelible. He excelled in comedies (particularly with good friend Billy Wilder), serious drama (including a turn in Shakespeare), and graced even a couple of musicals. It’s a wonder that, unlike such other “everyman” actors of the American screen from Gary Cooper to James Stewart to Henry Fonda, he only tried his hand at one Western. Based on Frank Harris’s fanciful 1930 memoir My Reminiscences As a Cowboy, director Delmer Daves’ film Cowboy (1958) cast Lemmon as the immigrant Irish-American Harris, who decides to leave behind his job as a Chicago hotel clerk and sign on as a hand for an arduous 2,000-mile cattle drive, a tenderfoot role that suited the neophyte film star, already an Oscar® winner for Mister Roberts and mostly seen in comedies to date, the exception being the tropical adventure Fire Down Below (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth. Harris’s mentor is trail boss Tom Reese, sturdily and pitch-perfectly played by Glenn Ford, definitely an old hand on horseback who’s seen it all and won’t let the task of training a greenhorn affect the drive. Daves and screenwriters Edmund H. North and (uncredited at the time) Dalton Trumbo strove to make Cowboy a realistic depiction of life on the trail, with its ever-present dust, danger and deprivation, vital in portraying Harris’s growth as a cowhand as well as the disillusionment that sets in when his romantic notions of an open-sky life get repeatedly trampled. Humor and sorrow, cowpoke horseplay and life-and-death clashes are juxtaposed throughout, superbly balanced by Daves, who as writer and/or director already seared his brand on Broken Arrow, Drum Beat, White Feather, Jubal, The Last Wagon and 3:10 to Yuma and knew how to capture the real outdoors on film without romanticization. Among a fine ensemble helping Lemmon learn the ropes are Brian Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel, Dick York, Victor Manuel Mendoza and for romantic interest Anna Kashfi, along with an uncredited Strother Martin as the victim of a thoughtless prank gone fatally wrong. Although Lemmon never returned to the Old West (except briefly as a comic Professor Fate in The Great Race), he did veer off into deep dramatic terrain on occasion – a la The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger – but keeping to concrete urban boulevards rather than outdoor frontier trails. You can judge how tall Lemmon sat in the saddle when Cowboy, featuring a thoughtful new Audio Commentary by seasoned Twilight Time hands Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor, rides out on hi-def Blu-ray February 16. Preorders open February 3.